We all have them: those souls who, going about their daily lives, doing the best they can, change ours. Some of you who know me well have heard about this one before, but today, I felt like telling the rest of you about him.When I was a kid, the week before back-to-school meant riding our bikes over to the elementary school to check out the class lists taped up in one of the windows to see whose class we were going to be in.
On that fateful day right before the beginning of grade five, a look at the lists left me quaking. This man, the stern, strict, terrifying vice-principal of our school, was to be my teacher:
To say he didn’t suffer fools is probably an understatement. He had the kind of look, an old-school vice-principal look, that could quell misbehaviour without a single word, and we were all scared of him.
But what none of us knew until we started getting to know him in his class was that he was passionate about language. He pulled it apart and put it back together and taught us to do the same. And while we worked, he played classical records on a scratchy old record player, too. I loved it. Loved knowing how sentences worked, loved understanding the rules and how I could bend them to my will once I knew what they were. I was mostly alone, I think. Other kids grumbled and groused about grammar lessons, but I revelled in them. Thirty years after being in his class, I still have my grade 5 grammar notebooks tucked away somewhere.
That year changed me in ways I didn’t realize until much later. I became an English teacher, one who taught against the tide, closing my classroom door and, very unfashionably at the time, teaching my students the language to talk about this language of ours. I like to hope there are at least a couple of people out there who write better emails, at least, because I taught them how sentences work.
When I moved on from teaching and became a writer, what he’d given me became even clearer. I play with language because I love it and because I can, and I can, at least in part, because all the stuff I’d picked up from being a bookworm made even more sense after he showed me why it was the way it was.
For ages, I’ve been meaning to tell him. He’s getting old, and I didn’t want to leave it too late. When I missed last year’s reunion, I thought I’d talk to him at the retirement of a mutual friend this past June. He missed it for health reasons. Suddenly not leaving it too late became a bit more urgent. But I was a chicken. So much easier to run into him somewhere and seize the moment than create one out of nothing.
But today, I was thinking about Judy Blume. (howzat for a non-sequitur?). She’s been a theme in my world this week, popping up at least four different times unexpectedly. And that got me thinking about the first time Amanda Palmer made me cry, at her show in Vancouver last year when she sang this:
And I decided that if she could sit on stage and tell Judy and all of us, too, I could call Mr. Rawlins. So I did. This morning. When my books find a publisher, he’ll be there in the acknowledgements. I hope he’ll be around to see that, but I don’t know if he will be, so I told him today. I don’t know what he thought, but I’m glad I made the call.